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State legislators won’t receive extra travel reimbursement for tolls, but there’s no guidance yet on use of public election grants for tolls

State legislators won’t receive extra travel reimbursement for tolls, but there’s no guidance yet on use of public election grants for tolls
In this Aug. 22, 2016 file photo, cars pass under toll sensor gantries hanging over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Newton, Mass. If Connecticut is to establish tolls, it needs to have a solid plan. (Elise Amendola / AP)

Connecticut lawmakers will have to eat their own cooking if a contentious highway toll plan wins approval -- there’s no provision for extra travel reimbursement beyond the mileage allowance for trips back and forth to the Capitol.

Led by Gov. Ned Lamont, Democrats who support using tolls to pay for languishing transportation improvements are seeking to drive that point home in the waning weeks of the legislative session, which ends June 5.

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“The governor’s office and Transportation [Committee] chairs agreed that members of the General Assembly should not be exempt from tolls and stipends should remain the same,” said Colleen Flanagan Johnson, a senior adviser to Lamont.

Even Republicans who oppose tolls say that there should be no special treatment for senators and representatives, who receive 58 cents per mile for travel to and from the Capitol. The amount is based on rates determined by the Internal Revenue Service.

“Legislators absolutely, more than anybody, should be made to pay those tolls,” said Rep. Fred Camillo, R-Greenwich, a toll foe. “Why should we get exempted from something that we’re asking every other working man and woman to pay?”

Mileage reimbursements are already a source of controversy under the golden dome, where some lawmakers have used, in some cases tens of thousands of dollars in extra income, to pad their pensions. It’s not illegal, but government watchdogs have pursued legislation to stop it.

The annual pay for both senators and representatives in Connecticut’s part-time legislature is $28,000. Senators get an extra $5,500 for expenses, compared to $4,500 for House members, not including mileage reimbursements.

Camillo’s 85-mile trip from Greenwich to Hartford is one of the farthest in the legislature. It would cost him about $5.98 a day for the round-trip if he traveled at off-peak times under a congestion mitigation plan introduced by Lamont’s administration. It would go up to $7.48 if he traveled during rush hour. The projected costs include discounts for Connecticut E-ZPass holders and for drivers who make more than 20 round-trips a month.

Camillo, who is in his sixth term, is running this year for first selectman of Greenwich.

“Unless you’re wealthy or retired with some money, this job hurts you financially,” Camillo said.

Said Larry Perosino, press secretary to House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, “There [are] no legislator discounts or reimbursements being discussed."

What is much more murky is whether publicly-financed candidates participating in Connecticut’s clean-elections program, or their campaign workers, could use campaign grants to pay for tolls. It’s common for campaign workers to receive mileage reimbursements.

“If the legislation passes, we would research how the IRS treats tolls and travel reimbursements (such as reimbursement for mileage generally) and follow their lead. But to date we haven’t researched the question," said Joshua Foley, a State Elections Enforcement Commission spokesman.

It’s commonplace for federal candidates to use privately-raised campaign funds to pay for tolls.

Beset by a number of scandals that led to the pejorative of “Corrupticut,” including the resignation and imprisonment of Gov. John G. Rowland, the state created the Citizens’ Election Program in 2006 to reduce the impact of special interest money in campaigns.

In the governor’s race, qualifying Democrats and Republicans are eligible for $1.2 million for the primary and $6 million for the general election if they win their party’s nomination.

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Candidates for governor must raise $250,000 from at least 2,500 contributors. All but $25,000 must come from within the state. There are different thresholds for other constitutional offices such as attorney general and for the legislature.

Neil Vigdor can be reached at nvigdor@courant.com

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